Jefferson and slavery

The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson, on the Smithsonian Magazine website, is a really depressing piece. It documents convincingly that in the years after the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson changed from an opponent of slavery to an upholder of the system.

Some people will use this article to attack the ideas in the Declaration of Independence, but nothing he did can detract from that document. The history raises troubling questions, though, about how someone can proclaim an ideal so eloquently and then betray it. I’m reminded of these lines from Atlas Shrugged:

Whenever you committed the evil of refusing to think and see, of exempting from the absolute of reality some one small wish of yours, whenever you choose to say: Let me withdraw from the judgment of reason the cookies I stole, or the existence of God, let me have my one irrational whim and I will be a man of reason about all else — that was the act of subverting your consciousness, the act of corrupting your mind.

It’s particularly dangerous when people’s actions conflict with their principles — or perhaps better put, when the principles they act on conflict with the ones they declare. People don’t like to be hypocrites, so they have to change either their ideas or their actions. Nothing says a priori that it’s their ideas they should stick to; lots of people have horrible political or religious ideas but are quite decent in daily life (at least within their tribe). Either way, though, the contradictions people hold weaken and may corrupt them. They may resolve them for the better or the worse. Too often, they compromise their principles one small step at a time in order to excuse what they’re doing.

Where does this leave us as admirers of Jefferson? We can still greatly honor the Jefferson of 1776, the author of the Declaration of Independence, the eloquent defender of freedom. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that his later actions betrayed his earlier ideals and not excuse them. Complete integrity in people is sadly rare.

Shortage in the midst of plenty

Employers can’t fill technical jobs for lack of people with the necessary skills, yet skilled professionals often can’t find work. How can both of these happen at once? A big reason may be that employers put out long lists of specific skills as job requirements, and they can’t find anyone who has years of experience with Java EE, C#, SQL, XML, and JavaScript. Or rather, it’s that they take those lists seriously. Job listings have had bloated requirements as long as I can remember, but I get the impression that companies now actually expect to find someone who meets them.

Why? Probably it’s because selecting candidates has increasingly become the province of HR departments. The people who work there may be good at what they do, but they don’t have domain-specific knowledge, so the only thing they can do is take the requirements literally.

There’s a company I won’t name that had a job listing in March for which I’m very highly qualified and which I think I would have loved. I applied and got a form response on April Fools’ Day. Several different attempts to follow up, including a letter to the head of engineering, produced no further results. The position is still posted on the company’s website!

So why has this happened? The most obvious reason is that the Internet lets applicants spam out their resumés. Employers get huge numbers of applications for any opening they publicize, and managers can’t plow through them all. HR people have to do it, and all they can really go by is checklists. But resumés that have every possible buzzword are usually phony, so the people who top the checklist screening aren’t qualified either (unless you go by yesterday’s Dilbert).

There may be other reasons for this approach. Companies don’t want to be sued for discrimination, and using a mechanical procedure can help to shield them. It wouldn’t surprise me if checklist reviewers are most careful about people who appear to be in groups that are in the best position to sue. If so, those who are ostensibly protected by anti-discrimination laws are hurt the most.

Job listings include very specific skills such as programming languages and frameworks, but the most important skills in software engineering are transferable to any body of code. These include sound design practices; good use of paradigms such as OOP, reusability, and testing; ability to explain and document; and factoring code intelligently. In addition, attitudes such as dedication and enthusiasm are important. No checklist lets anyone judge these qualifications.

The businesses that can win in this situation are the ones that look beyond buzzwords to find the people who will do the best job. There’s risk in doing it, but risk-takers usually beat cautious people. The applicants who can win are the ones who can find the businesses smart enough to do that.

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A time to speak out

I don’t generally comment directly on current national issues in this blog, but the present situation is one where every voice is needed. Either the secret surveillance state gets rolled back, or we resign ourselves to a regime in which top officials act without accountability and it’s a crime to report wrongdoing.

Bradley Manning is on trial for exposing war crimes by the US. Obama has already declared him guilty. In making that advance pronouncement, he said, “We’re a nation of laws. We don’t individually make our own decisions about how the laws operate.” Yet Obama claims exactly that power for himself.Obama posing in front of Superman statue

Edward Snowden is an international fugitive. Politicians have talked about bringing treason charges against him. Ralph Peters of Fox News wants Snowden and Manning killed. The investigation of reporters and the politically oriented audits by the IRS have been almost forgotten with the current blow-up, but they’re part of the same pattern.

It’s necessary for people who disagree on a lot to come together to stop a government that has gotten the furthest out of hand since the Japanese-American internments of World War II. Loyalty to your political party won’t give you any guidance; both Republicans and Democrats are split on this. This is a battle between those who want unlimited, unaccounted, centralized power and those who think that a government should be open, accountable, and subject to some sort of limits.

Even loyalty to Obama won’t let you avoid deciding for yourself. Are you loyal to the 2008 Obama, who promised a “new era of openness,” or the current Obama, who tells us that Ignorance Is Strength? This isn’t an issue of party against party, but of principles against power.

Find some way to speak out. I’d always been reluctant to register with to sign petitions, but I did in order to add my name to the petition to pardon Snowden. If the government has access to all my communications anyway, registering there can’t make things any worse; at most it lets them know about one of my spamtrap addresses.

It’s time to turn back from the lunacy that lets the government bully us in the name of protecting us. Let’s make it happen.

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Guessing Social Security

Which way will Social Security go? Will it run dry if it follows its present course, or is it in fine shape? You can find predictions for both, backed up by figures. While I’m more inclined to believe the pessimistic prognoses, I really don’t have the knowledge to pick one with confidence.

It really doesn’t matter, anyway. Social Security isn’t a business that will go broke if it can’t meet its obligations. Its “trust fund” is an accounting fiction consisting of the government’s obligations to itself. The real bottom line is that the ratio of people collecting to people paying increases with people’s longevity. This means that recipients will get less or people being taxed will pay more. If the trust fund goes broke, Congress will abandon the model, converting Social Security from a nominal Ponzi scheme to an overt welfare program. For most purposes, it’s already the latter.

This means that barring a major economic collapse or political shift, we can expect to get back some of our money if we live long enough. We shouldn’t count on those numbers which the government sends us in the mail, though. Congress can change things according to the political winds.

It would be logical to increase the age at which people start collecting; when Social Security started, people at age 65 were mostly within a few years of death, but now people often live to 80 and beyond. The AARP, however, has put its lobbying muscle behind keeping the age the same, and most political decisions follow the logic of getting re-elected, not the logic of economics. Maybe it will remain possible to start collecting at age 65 but will be a really bad idea. This is already true to a degree.

I’m not counting on Social Security in my retirement plans. If I manage to get back some of my money, that’s an extra. I’ve made sure to save enough that I won’t starve without it.

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FairPoint Energy’s false-front operation

I’ve been digging up some information on FairPoint Energy. This article provides some interesting information, starting with the instruction “NOT FOR DISTRIBUTION IN THE UNITED STATES OR OVER UNITED STATES WIRE SERVICES.” At first I figured put this restriction on all their material for some lawyer-related reason, but browsing through their news, I can’t find it on anything else. We’re not supposed to know this in New Hampshire, I guess.

The article tells us what FairPoint Energy is in business terms:

FairPoint Energy, LLC is a subsidiary of the Crius Energy, LLC, a competitive energy provider that is unaffiliated with FairPoint Communications or its subsidiaries. FairPoint Energy is a local provider of affordable, retail energy that offers 100% green energy options to customers in Maine and New Hampshire. FairPoint Energy was created through a strategic relationship between Crius Energy, LLC and FairPoint Communications and uses the FairPoint Energy name under a license agreement with FairPoint Communications, Inc. FairPoint EnergySM is a service mark of FairPoint Communications, registration pending.

This agrees with the fine print on FairPoint’s own website. It’s operating under the name of New Hampshire’s local telephone monopoly, having gotten permission to. To me, since I’ve had to deal with FairPoint Communications’ unreliable ADSL, the name was a negative point, but I suppose the familiarity of the name gives Crius’s operation an unearned advantage in many people’s minds. In an earlier letter, That same web page gives 866-984-2001 as its phone number, even though that number belongs to FairPoint Communications. When I called to get my account cancelled, it was clear I was initially dealing with people who had nothing to do with FairPoint Energy, though they eventually got me to the right place.

I wonder if that was part of the marketing agreement, and what FairPoint Communications employees think of having to answer calls by people upset with a company they don’t work for.

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FairPoint Energy overbills customers it illegitimately acquires

I’ve posted a couple of times about the practices of FairPoint Energy, which snagged me as an unwilling customer without my consent. Today I received a notice that it also overbilled me. The notice doesn’t say for how much.

There is no acknowledgement that I have instructed Fairpoint to terminate my service, and my last electric bill still shows them as collecting it. Since Fairpoint was never legally entitled to bill me, anything it charged me is really overbilling. But this just helps to show that FairPoint is a complete sleaze.

Update: On its homepage, FairPoint Energy says that it is “is unaffiliated with FairPoint Communications or its subsidiaries,” though it has a “marketing relationship” with FairPoint Communications. So why did they give me the phone number of FairPoint Communications in their previous communication?

Further thought: I don’t know the details of how these alternative power companies work in New Hampshire, but it smells like the kind of false deregulation that bombed in California years ago. Evidently they get to use PSNH as a billing agency, allowing dubious startups to get into the business without having to engage in normal business communications with their “customers.”

Update, June 7: I’ve re-titled this post to make it clearer that it’s about FairPoint Energy and not FairPoint Communications.

Click the “Fairpoint” tag under this post for earlier posts on the subject.

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